Blank check? The debate over US crisis response funds
By John Cappel:
Chaos and conflict in Ukraine, Iraq, and Syria have prompted many calls for a more robust American response, but the Obama administration’s latest effort to address these crises is facing a difficult path through Congress. As part of the fiscal year 2015 budget request for Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO), sometimes considered “war funding,” the administration proposed a $5 billion Counterterrorism Partnerships Fund (CTPF), broadly intended to address the crisis in Iraq and Syria, and a $1 billion European Response Initiative (ERI), largely designed to reassure NATO allies of American commitment in the midst of conflict in Ukraine. These proposed funds, which would be divided between the Defense Department and State Department, have stirred a great deal of controversy not only for the policies they would support but also for the way they have been structured and justified.*
To allow the U.S. to rapidly adapt policies as ongoing crises evolve, the CTPF and ERI are designed to maximize the executive branch’s flexibility in deciding how the money in them is spent. As a result, however, some members of Congress have labeled the funds as little more than “slush funds.” Unlike most budget requests, which designate particular sums for specific accounts, the CTPF and ERI are both set up as much more flexible “transfer funds.” Transfer funds are usually designated for a general purpose, but executive agencies are given discretion in moving money from transfer funds into specific accounts if and when they see fit. Although other transfer funds do exist in the federal budget, Congress is generally skeptical of them because they give away Congress’s usual power to control government spending.
The administration’s effort to preserve flexibility in choosing what policies to implement with the CTPF and ERI funds has also lead to a dearth of documentation justifying the requested funds and detailing how the money would ultimately be spent, especially for the CTPF. Although the Defense Department is almost notorious for generating thousands of pages of budget justification materials every year, DOD’s request for $4 billion in CTPF funds is only 11 pages long.
In terms of funding details, the DOD CTPF request offers only a “preliminary allocation” of $2.5 billion for “counterterrorism support,” $1 billion for a “Syria regional stabilization initiative” that includes $500 million “to provide assistance to the moderate elements of the Syrian opposition,” and $500 million for “crisis response.” The request further notes that this allocation is only to “illustrate potential uses of CTPF dollars” and “could change based on world events and resulting needs.” The language in the request is so vague that the Ranking Member of the House Armed Services Committee, Rep. Adam Smith, recently argued that “if you wanted to take this money and use it to refuel an aircraft carrier, there is nothing in this language that stops you from doing that.”
Structural issues aside, there are also questions about the policies the funds would support. Will increasing U.S. military presence in Europe address what may be a deeper political fracture in U.S.-European relations? Will it be possible to effectively train and equip a fighting force from the moderate Syrian opposition? What would the strategic and political consequences of such a force be? Especially after the collapse of much of the U.S.-trained Iraqi military, should efforts to build partner capacity through military training be viewed as an effective policy tool?
Members of Congress would have raised these and other concerns about the policies backed by the ERI and the CTPF, regardless of how the funds were structured. The administration’s decisions about how to structure these funds, however, have essentially initiated a turf war with Congress over the execution and oversight of the CTPF and ERI. This conflict also includes questions as to whether these funds should even be in the OCO budget, which has usually been thought of as providing funds for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. As a result, the odds of these new funds being approved by Congress as requested are low.
The ERI and CTPF requests ultimately serve as striking examples of how competing institutions and seemingly mundane budgetary procedures can substantially shape real-world outcomes. The way the U.S. reacts to the crises in Ukraine, Iraq, and Syria in the coming months will depend on more than the merits of the policies the administration has proposed; it will also depend on whether Congress feels comfortable granting the administration the authority and the resources to develop and implement those policies.
* The CTPF would provide $4 billion for the Defense Department and $1 billion for the State Department, while the ERI would allot $925 to Defense and the remaining $75 million to State.